Book extract: Child 44 follows a murder investigation by an officer in Stalin's secret police force

Sunday 09 March 2008 01:00

Leo was picking up speed. The amphetamines focused him: nothing else existed except the tracks in the snow, the rhythm of his steps. He was incapable of stopping or slowing, incapable of failure, incapable of feeling the cold. Even though he guessed the suspect had at least an hour's head start, that fact didn't concern him. The man had no idea he was being followed, he'd almost certainly be walking.

Up ahead was the crest of a gentle hill and Leo hoped that from the top he'd be able to see the suspect. Reaching the top he paused, surveying the landscape around him. There were snow-covered fields in every direction. Some distance ahead there was the edge of a dense forest but before that, a kilometre away, downhill, there was a man shuffling through the snow. This was no farmer or labourer. It was the traitor. Leo was sure of it. He was making his way north on course towards the forest. If he managed to reach the trees he'd be able to hide. Leo had no dogs to track him. He checked over his shoulder – his three agents were lagging. Some tie between him and them had snapped. They couldn't be counted on. He'd have to catch the traitor himself.

As though some sixth sense had alerted him, Anatoly stopped walking and turned around. There, running down the small hill towards him, was a man. There could be no doubt that this was an officer of the State. Anatoly had been certain that all evidence connecting him to this remote village had been destroyed. For this reason he stood for a moment, doing nothing at all, mesmerised by the sight of his pursuer. He'd been found. He felt his stomach heave, his face flush red and then, realising this man meant death, he spun around and began running towards the woods. His first few steps were clumsy and panicked, staggering sideways into the deeper snow drifts. He quickly understood that his coat was a hindrance. He pulled it off, dropping it on the ground, running for his life.

Anatoly no longer made the mistake of glancing behind him. He was concentrating on the woods ahead. At this rate he was going to reach them before his pursuer could catch up. The woods offered a chance to disappear, to hide. And if it came to a fight he'd have a better chance in there, where there were branches and stones, than unarmed and out in the open.

Leo increased his speed, pushing himself harder, sprinting as though on a running track. Some part of his mind remembered that the terrain was treacherous and running at this speed precarious. But the amphetamines made him believe anything was possible – he could leap this distance between them.

Suddenly Leo lost his footing, sliding to the side before tumbling face down into a snow drift. Dazed, buried in snow, he rolled onto his back, wondering if he was hurt whilst staring up at the pale-blue sky. He felt no pain. He got up, brushing the snow off his face and hands, regarding with cool detachment the cuts on his hands. He looked for the figure of Brodsky, expecting to see him disappearing into the edge of the forest. But to his surprise the suspect had also stopped running. He was standing still. Confused, Leo hurried forward. He didn't understand – just as escape seemed possible this man seemed to be doing nothing at all. He was staring at the ground in front of him. Barely 100 metres now separated them. Leo drew his gun, slowing to a walk. He took aim, knowing full well he couldn't risk a shot from this range. His heart was pounding, two thumps for each footstep. Another surge of methamphetamine energy: the roof of his mouth went dry. His fingers trembled with an excess of energy, sweat seeped down his back. There were barely 50 paces between them. Brodsky turned around. He wasn't armed. He had nothing in his hands; it was as though he'd suddenly and inexplicably given up. Leo continued forward, closer and closer. Finally he could see what had stopped Brodsky. There was an ice-covered river some 20 metres wide in between him and the woods. It hadn't been visible from the hill, hidden under a blanket of heavy snow which had settled across the frozen surface. Leo called out:

– It's over!

Anatoly considered this remark, turned back towards the forest and stepped out onto the ice. His footsteps were unsteady, sliding across the smooth surface. The ice sheet creaked under his weight, barely holding him. He didn't slow down. Step after step after step, the ice was beginning to crack – black, crooked lines formed on the surface, criss-crossing and fanning out from underneath his feet. The faster he moved, the faster the lines appeared, multiplying in all directions. Icy water seeped up through the joints. He pressed forward: he was at the middle of the river, another 10 metres to go to the other side. He looked down at dark, freezing water flowing beneath him.

Leo reached the edge of the riverbank, holstered his gun, stretched out his hand.

– The ice won't hold. You won't reach the woods.

Brodsky stopped and turned.

– I'm not trying to reach the woods.

He raised his right leg and with a sudden movement brought his boot crashing down, splintering the surface and puncturing through to the river underneath. Water rushed up, the ice broke apart and he fell through.

Completely numb, in shock, he allowed himself to sink: looking up at the sunlight. Then, feeling the pull upwards, he kicked himself downstream away from the break in the ice. He had no intention of surfacing. He'd disappear into this dark water. His lungs were beginning to sting and already he could feel his body fighting his decision to die. He kicked himself further downstream swimming as far away from the light as possible, away from any chance of survival. Finally his natural buoyancy lifted him to the surface; instead of air his face rose up against a solid sheet of ice. The slow-moving current dragged him further downstream.

The traitor wasn't going to surface, no doubt he was swimming away from the air hole in an attempt to kill himself and protect his accomplices. Leo hurried down the riverbank, estimating where under the ice he might be. He unfastened his heavy leather belt and gun, dropped them on the ground and stepped out onto the frozen river, his boots slipping across the surface. Almost immediately the ice began to strain. He kept moving, trying to keep his footsteps light, but the ice was splintering and he could feel it sinking under his weight. Reaching the middle of the river, he crouched down, frantically brushing away the snow. But the suspect was nowhere to be seen – just dark water all around. Leo moved further downstream but fracture lines were chasing his every step, surrounding him from all sides. Water began to swell, the cracks came together. He looked up to the sky, filling his lungs, bracing himself as he heard a snap.

The ice collapsed.

© Tom Rob Smith 2008

'Child 44' by Tom Rob Smith is published by Simon & Schuster, £12.99

About the author

Tom Rob Smith was born in 1979 to an English father and Swedish mother. He graduated from Cambridge University in 2001 and worked as a screenwriter, including a stint in Phnom Penh, storylining Cambodia's first-ever soap opera. He lives in London. Child 44 is his first novel.

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